He had a short season - just five years. He didn't make All-Pro. Half the time, he didn't even make first string. His top salary was $16,000. In the end, he got traded. And then cut. And yet there are those who say Peter Gent had Hall of Fame hands. And a hall of shame attitude.
He sits in his living room deep in the Texas hill country, 11 years and two novels from the last time he caught a football for money. In the garage are a yellow Lincoln and a red pickup and blow-up posters of himself making shoestring catches. His wife Jody sits a few feet away from him; his 3-year-old son Carter watches cartoons in the other room. Outside the window, scrub jays flit in hazy, lime-green lights. This is a man at ease, though not necessarily with himself.
In a little while, he will say: "You can't possibly know what it's like until you're sitting in a room with someone and the call comes that he's just been put on waivers and suddenly you see a 260-pound man who was cleaning out L.A. motorcycle bars with you the night before get down on the floor and start crying."
And afterward: "It is, it's totally nuts. And it's leading our children totally in the wrong direction. We're crippling them."
Peter Gent has begun unconsciously to limber the fingers of his right hand. He works them in and out, up and down, a pianist about to go on, a safecracker itching to try the dials. "If you could put it somewhere near me, I could usually catch it," he says quietly, pride still swimming up.
The other night, the author of "North Dallas Forty" went to see his movie - for the fifth time in four days. His movie, and the novel it is taken from, are a pro football parable of drugs and pain and sex told from deep inside the game. It is about the absurdity of grown men trying to hurt each other under bright lights.
Phil Elliott is a talented, non-conforming pass receiver, an antihero gone slack in the gut; he gets by on dope and savvy. Seth Maxwell is the quarterback who plays for pay and his own internal gleam. "Hell, we're all whores anyway. Why not be the best?" Maxwell tells Elliott at one point. The similarity between Maxwell and Don Meredith, who used to throw passes to Peter Gent, is only by intention.
The story takes place over eight days. Though it is veined with bawdy jokes, Gent's message is dead serious: Pro football is a major American industry whose product is violence. Critics and audiences seem to love the movie; the National Football League refused to help in its making, though several active players have roles.
The movie opened at 650 theaters a week and a half ago, including the Cine I in Dallas, which is a couple of out-patterns from the glass-and-steel headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys, the team Gent played for from 1964 through 1968. In 10 days, the film has grossed over $7 million. Gent went to see the film in a shopping center on the west edge of Austin. He had on khaki shorts and a red baseball cap and hunched himself down in the ninth row.
When Nick Nolte, who plays Gent's fictional self, took a needle before the climactic game with the Chicago Marauders, Gent flinched. His hands were bridged at his nose. He emitted a soft, sucking sound, not exactly a whistle. Afterward, in the parking lot, he said he had changed his mind and didn't want to go drinking. He felt tired, he said.
"I do know this," says Gent. "During the first couple of years after I left football, there was no justification for living. It was a nightmare.Life just had no meaning compared to catching a football. Selling 40 color ads to Braniff just wasn't cutting it. Some days, the only reason I got to work was because Jody dressed me and combed my hair."
Once, when he was in the hospital for his wrenched back (Vince Costello of the Giants got him from behind with both knees), Tom Landry, coach of the Cowboys, came to visit Gent. They were going to put him on waivers the next week, Gent says. Landry wanted to know how he felt, could they use him. Feel great, Gent lied. The next day he checked himself out of the hospital. He could barely walk. On the day of the game, he had the team doc pump two or three syringes of Novocain into him. "I didn't even make it through the warm-ups," he says.
Last week, Lee Roy Jordan, who played 14 seasons with the Cowboys as a middle linebacker, said in the Dallas Times Herald Peter Gent was "soft." He never saw him work out or lift weights, Jordan says. The reason Gent got hurt was because he didn't take care of himself. Peter Gent responds to this with expletives.
He is 36 now and graying. His great Viking face, both soft and mean, looks 45. His nose is broad and flat and a little pushed up; all told it was broken or dislocated 14 times (twice in one afternoon, he says, by Chris Hanburger).
Though the body is prematurely aged, it is still trim; he moves it with a lanky, shrug-shouldered grace. He can't do anything so strenuous as hit a golf ball. So he swims and sits in saunas. His wife says he never sleeps undisturbed through a night; his limit is about three hours before his back or something else drives him awake with pain. "I was like leather dried in the sun," says Phil Elliott.
Gent himself says he can't raise one of his legs without first tilting his head and "doing these other little tricks." Jody Gent says it depresses her a lot when she lets herself think about his injuries. "That's when he quotes Dandy Don to me: "You gotta play the cards they dealt you.""
In a corner of his den, above the stereo, there is a framed black-and-white photo of Gent and Dandy Don Meredith. The two are standing on a dock somewhere in Baja, Mexico. Both are holding aloft giant fish, both are in swim trunks, both wear dazzling grins. Meredith, the quarterback and boulevardier, has a Tiparillo in his teeth; Gent the flanker and outlaw, has on a cowbody hat. There is something almost self-parodying about the picture, about its freeze-frame Hemingway swagger. Written across the bottom is this: "Pete. Looks fishy to me."
"I think we happened to meet at a time when we were both struggling with certain questions," Gent says. "Like, "Why are we crazy?" "Why are we crying?" "Why don't we have a real life?""
Peter Gent has a real life now. In the decade since he played wide receiver for the Cowboys, popping full grains of codeine like Milk Duds, he has sold advertising, gotten married again, moved home to Michigan where he grew up, moved back to Texas, fathered a son, and become a writer of economy and precision, writing sentences like these:
But everything's dead, isn't it? I realized that one Sunday, lying near the endline with my right foot twisted backward and flopping uselessly, the broken bones poking through the skin. I watched my sock staining red and understood that success comes by accident, and that the same process brings failure. Success is only a matter of opinion. Failure is a cold hard fact.
Changing directions at mid-field to become a writer may have surprised Gent even more than the country's book critics. Though he majored in communications at Michigan State, there never seemed anything inevitable about his literary career. As a kid in Bangor, Mich., they wouldn't give him a library card. "I was a wise - and they wouldn't have wanted me in there." The first book he read was off the paperback rack at the town drugstore, a Thomas Costain novel. Between his freshman and sophomore years in high school, Gent sprouted five inches. "After that, it was all sports," he says.
But he is a writer now, and he lives a writer's life, working hard till noon when it's going right, yelling at his wife when it's not. Gent's typewriter faces away from the window in his stone-and-wood ranch house. There is a day bed there, where he works when the pain gets bad.
The other afternoon, Peter Gent sat at a table in the Dinner Bell restaurant on the town square in Wimberley. Wimberley is not the largest town in the Texas imagination. But Blanco Creek winds through it, and the blue-bonnets grow wild on the roadsides. "When I came here I just decided I was going to believe there were honest people left," Gent says. He signed the note on his house and eight acres mostly on hope.
Sonny Gold, owner of the Dinner Bell and the local justice of the peace, sat with Gent. "Not a soul in here knows him, but he's the local celebrity," gigged Gold. Then he said: "I went down to San Marcos to see Pete's movie. We're great Cowboy fans around here. We die when they lose. Some people here have never been to Dallas. I've only been there once myself. I would have thought the cleanest people left in this country were athletes. If Petey had to take that needle, it was for us to win. That's what hurts now."
A cowboy wandered up, stood with his hands on his hips, bit the back of his toothpick. He didn't look at Gent, who was in his shorts and moccasins. "Saw the flick, Pete. Liked it. Really did." He turned to go. "Might have changed me some."
Later, Gent ran into a kid named Mark who sometimes dates Gent's 16-year-old stepdaughter, Holly. Mark, blond and bony, was naked to his waist. He had been swimming in the creek. He stood on the other side of a dock, searching to say something.
"Yeah, I saw it Peter, and, well, did you ever see a movie and think it was an introduction, that it was building up to tell you something?" Mark looked frustrated.
"Well, it is, Mark. It's an introduction to real life. That guy in the movie was just starting to live."
"Okay," Mark said.
But nothing is monolithic, not Texas or the game he played, or his feelings for either. Peter Gent misses football sorely. Misses the moment when you leap and the leather sings into your hands and the defender feels stupid and 80,000 Americans are on their feet, roaring. "Sometimes," Peter Gent says slowly, "when I run into guys now I played with in Dallas, when I first see them, my face flushes, I get tears in my eyes."
He hasn't sorted out his feelings about Tom Landry. "Look, he's a man of history. He's a brilliant football tactician. I've been with him, and I've experienced things with him. Like everyone else connected with the Cowboys, I have an emotional relationship with the man. I've seen him cry in locker rooms, get mad. And yet there's a whole part of him that's not there. There's a part his own humanity has had to pay. Ours too."
A while back, the Cowboys held a team reunion. Gent didn't get an invitation. ("They have their lists.") So he called up the management and said, "Look, I know mine got lost in the mail, so if you wouldn't mind mailing another..." On the night of the party, Gent wound up sitting next to Landry and his wife. Landry was more than decent to him, he says.
Just before "North Dallas Forty" was published in 1973, Gent went to interview Landry for Sport magazine. (The story never got published.) The word was already out that Gent's novel would disassemble his old team. "I said, "Tom, I played for you five years and I don't even know you. Do you ever regret shrouding yourself this way?" He thought about it for a minute and then said that he did it on purpose, and that, yes, he regretted it. But that's the way it is."
In "North Dallas Forty," Phil Elliott and Seth Maxwell are best friends. When Elliott gets busted on a trumped-up morals and dope charge by the league's internal affairs unit, there is the suggestion that Maxwell- his crony in vice - knew all along, maybe even turned him in.
That didn't happen in real life. Peter Gent says Don Meredith is still one of his closest friends. But there is a line of self-interest you don't cross - now or then. "It's like the drowning man: No sense both of us going down. Don always knew that instinctively. There's no way you can carry someone." Gent roomed with Craig Morton, the backup quarterback, and palled with Meredith. "I wasn't in camp very long before I saw who was larger than life." As of a few days ago, Meredith hadn't yet seen "Forty." He told Gent's wife on the phone he intended to go soon.
One of the most convincing performances in the screen version of "Forty" is by current Oakland Raider John Matuszak. "My impression," says Gent, "is John knows it's (pro football) all wrong, but what do you do when you're trapped in a 300-pound body?"
Gent says his novel was kicked all over Hollywood for five years before it went into production. Seven or eight scripts were written. Dino De Laurentiis was interested: also Robert Altman. On Feb. 28 of this year, Gent got a call telling him to be in California in three days to begin writing.
The film was shot in 10 weeks, and scenes were played after being written the night before. Fred Biletnikoff, 14-year-veteran of the Oakland Raiders, was brought in to fine-tune Nolte (who had played football at Eastern Arizona Junion College and other great schools). Gent shares a screen-writing credit with director Ted Kotcheff and producer Frank Yablans.
Gent thinks the reason the film got made at all was Nolte, who is now in the heavyweight division of American actors. Nolte had read the novel a while back and was hot to do it.
Gent wrote the screenplay from the floor or the bed of his Hollywood hotel. Bud Shrake, a Texas writer and pal, was working on a script two floors above him. A lot of food and booze got sent up to both rooms. One day, the bellman said to Shrake, "What's the matter with your friend? He's always on the floor."
In college, Peter Gent didn't play football: He was all Big Ten in basketball. "You think it's bad in the pros," he says. "In college, theyre renting you, for crissakes."
Gent was captain of the Spartans his senior year. Bill Berry, now basketball coach at San Jose State, played alongside him. "He used to do things in games," Berry says. "Maybe go for a steal and dive into the stands. There was no way he was going to get the ball. The players knew what he was doing (showboating). The fans didn't."
Gent grew up middle-class and rural in Van Buren County, Mich. He and his two brothers, Jamie and Charley, made up three-fifths of the Bangor High team. Gent's father is a retired mailman; his mother worked for the school system. "If you tried to convince them a major college was in the flesh business..." he says.
He got signed to the Cowboys for a " $2 book of stamps." The Cowboys' philosophy back then was to draft the best athlete possible. Gent could long-jump 22 feet, could move like a dream. He was a natural. "In a way, it was an easy transfer from basketball to the pros," he says. "My whole theory is that the focus is the ball. It frames your consciousness." But he couldn't run routes. Bobby Hayes, the other receiver, was the star. After '67, when Lance Rentzel came in, Gent's career was downhill.
Gent has never seen himself in the category of such angry ex-athletes as Dave Meggyesy of the St. Louis Cardinals, or Bernie Parrish of the Cleveland Browns. Meggyesy's "Out of Their League" (1970) and Parrish's "They Call it a Game" (1971) werent" novels, but attempts at wholesale desanctification of football. Gent thinks football is a metaphor for the way we are, for our violence and Vietnams, but he doesn't expect his novel, or now his movie, to really change things. People will still flick on the TV this fall.
"Meggyesy wanted to be a linebacker for the other side,"
What athletics principally gave him, he thinks, are an ability to endure public humiliation, and the discipline to follow something through. Both things serve him well at the typewriter. "It's controlling the fear and adrenalin that counts," he says. Then and now.
Just before "North Dallas Forty" was published, Gent packed up his family and moved to Michigan. He was afraid of the leeches, he says; he hadn't known them since he stopped playing. "I had a $20,000 check in my pocket from my publisher. A friend of mine at the bank cashed it, we locked up our house and didn't come back to Dallas for two years."
In Michigan, he hid himself on a farm and worked on a second novel, "Texas Celebrity Turkey Trot," published last year. The novel has had only a fraction of "Forty's" success. Gent thinks it's the black-hole syndrome of the second novel. Now he works to complete a third book, a detective novel set in San Antonio and a town like Wimberley. But lately it's been hard to write. Hollywood has lured.
He is spraddled on the sofa. His boy has come in to play Popeye with him.(Gent is Pluto, and endures a pounding.) Gene Autry is winding in from a stereo in another room: "Give me a home, where the buffalo roam."
"Now I'm living by my wits. You see, I lived by my body so long, it was fairly easy to move to living by my wits. Some day, they may say he was living by his wits all along." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Peter Gent, reacting to a newspaper review of "North Dallas Forty" in the Wimberley, Tex., town square with Sonny Gold, left, and Jack Oldham, right. by Tim Wentworth for The Washington Post. Picture 3, Peter and Jody Gent, by Tim Wentworth for The Washington Post